Album: Low

The Great Destroyer, ROUGH TRADE
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The Independent Culture

Formed at the noisy 1993 high-water mark of grunge with the contrary aim of playing as quietly and slowly as possible, Low have, over the ensuing decade, helped establish the notion of "sadcore" alt.rock as a viable alternative to the brattish playpen tantrums of skate-punk that has been grunge's least rewarding legacy to music. Indeed, without Low's groundwork, it's debatable whether the likes of Smog or Bonnie "Prince" Billy would have found as responsive an audience for their comparably introspective work.

With The Great Destroyer, however, Low have finally broken out of their self-imposed reserve to produce an album that seethes with barely repressed rock power. The poise and hymn-like quality of their previous work is still present in the quieter passages of songs like "On the Edge of" and "When I Go Deaf", but here it's prey to bouts of Neil Young-style fractured guitar dynamics that shatter the songs' atmospheres. On the latter piece, it's as if Alan Sparhawk is trying to make himself go deaf - or turning up the volume because he's going deaf - when the climactic fusillade of feedback and distortion washes over the song. His equanimity at the prospect of deafness still seems perverse, equally alleviated by the compensations of vision and the relief at not having to write songs: "I'll stop scratching out lines".

That would be a shame, as Sparhawk writes peculiar songs, whose pleasant melodies conceal barbed intimations of a darker, more treacherous world - whether it's the short-tempered narrator of "Just Stand Back", or the mysterious miscreants savaged in "Everybody's Song": "Every day they torture us/ They say, nothing stays together/ Breaking everybody's heart/ Breaking everyone apart/ Singing everybody's song". There's an almost brutal swagger to the latter's tense, angular chording, as also to the clangour of ringing guitar distortion of "California", which furnishes Low's best chance of single success with its catchy reflection on a late life-change.

The trio's guitar-based style is broadened by the synth growl that powers the low-key trance-rock opener, "Monkey", and by the mellotron or string-synth pad underscoring "Cue the Strings". Elsewhere, it's hard to unpick the dense arrangements of tracks like "Just Stand Back" and "Step", which recall both My Bloody Valentine's curtains of guitar sound, and a modern, condensed, indie version of the Wall of Sound. A substantial part of the credit for this must surely go to producer Dave Fridmann, whose subtle touch previously helped sculpt the psychedelic excesses of those such as Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips into more commercially satisfying shape, a trick he effectively repeats here.

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